Measles outbreak leads to shutdown of public services in Samoa

(TVNZ | AP) In this image from video, people gather outside a health emergency operation center Thursday, Dec. 5, 2019, in Apia, Samoa. Samoa’s main streets were eerily quiet on Thursday, Dec. 5, 2019, as the government stepped up efforts to curb a measles epidemic that has killed 62 people.

The government of Samoa is shutting down all public services for two days to fight a measles outbreak that has killed more than 55 people and infected thousands of others in the South Pacific island nation over the past two months.

Nearly 3,900 cases of measles have been reported in the country, whose population is just 200,000. Schools have been shuttered since the government declared the outbreak a national emergency last month.

The shutdown, which will take place Thursday and Friday, comes amid a resurgence of measles in dozens of countries in recent years. Worldwide, more than 140,000 people died from measles last year, according to estimates released Tuesday by the World Health Organization and the Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention.

In Samoa, where vaccination rates are low, more than 150 new cases of infection were disclosed Monday alone.

Most of the victims in the country, which is part of the same island chain as American Samoa, have been babies and children under 4. The Samoan government said this week that half of the 29,000 most vulnerable children — those age 6 months to 4 years — had yet to be vaccinated.

As in numerous other countries, officials have struggled to stanch mistrust about vaccinations. In Samoa’s case, health authorities said many people became wary when two babies died last year after being given vaccines that had been erroneously mixed with an expired muscle relaxant instead of water.

Although the measles vaccination rate among infants in the country was as high as 90% in 2013, according to the World Health Organization, by last year it had plummeted to 31%.

Vaccinations were made mandatory for everyone in Samoa last month.

“Our children and people will never become immune to any future epidemic unless we have almost 100% vaccination coverage,” Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi said during a visit to hospitals Monday. “It’s the only antidote.”

Mobile clinics have reached remote villages and rural areas in recent weeks, and over 110,000 people in Samoa have been vaccinated since early October, according to government figures.

The country’s hospitals are ill equipped to handle the crisis: The World Health Organization and UNICEF estimate the country’s main hospital needs at least 180 additional nurses to fight the measles outbreak.

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